Five Layers Alive - Creative Process

                                                                                                                                                By Karen Nimmo

Fritz Perls’ five layer model is something I know intimately from my own experience.   The freezing and frustration of impasse and the nothingness and emptiness of implosion sometimes feel like my most familiar and regularly visited experiences.   What do I want? What do I need?  What’s happening?  Oh, I know what I want, but I’m too ashamed or afraid to reach towards it.  Or, oh, I’m angry, that’s not allowed, again, ashamed, afraid.  Or, oh, I’m excited, that’s not allowed either, ashamed, afraid.  Oh, I’m [insert emotional state /need /want here], rinse repeat.  What a headfuck.


Over the past few few years, alongside my gestalt training and personal therapy, I have developed a supportive art making practice, using the basic form of the mandala as a means of expressing myself, processing confusing feelings and generally nurturing myself.  This has been in equal measure a place of solace and refuge, and a hotbed of frustration; as I either surrender into my beingness and bring form to that through paints, pastels, smudges and smears, or fight myself on the page with stopping, starting, destroying, adding, ruining.  There is a lot of life here.


In these nearly three years of art making (having never done much since school) I have discovered so much of the ways in which I flow, interrupt myself, create, destroy – how I ‘Karen’ – bringing outside myself my process of impasse and implosion, so that there might be the possibility of explosion.  These concepts are most often used with reference to experience in the therapeutic relationship, and I sometimes find them a useful way marker when things are getting sticky and the possibility of the new is emerging, yet interrupted.


I’ve been interested in them too though in how they apply in my relationship with my experience.  How I get in my own way of my emergence; and through art making, how through working with the emergent and bringing form to that in colour, marks, shapes – body moving, breathing all the while – I come into contact with that which is emerging and bring it out into the world.  Inviting, listening, nurturing, encouraging, supporting.  Or not, as the case may be.


And most immediately, this step into writing has been gestating for months, emerging from a bigger idea to share with the Gestalt community more widely what I’ve learned through my mandala work[1].  I want to share the links I’ve discovered with gestalt theory and how this might be used as a tool for therapist self support and in client work.  I’ve had ideas of a full journal article and a series of workshops for therapists.  But then nothing happened.  The ideas were fulsome with the illusion of satisfaction in and of themselves, supporting me to stay in a familiar fantasy realm where I dream big, yet struggle to take action [again, see para 1]. 


So today, some months later, I find myself with energy to gather up these threads of idea, hold them, do a little free work with pastels to gather myself.  I start writing the bigger piece, it is coming along, then I take a break and look online at the NGV page, remember there is a blog option, and remember my enthusiasm for contributing to this community and having a voice.  There is support out there, there is a place for me share my work.  And I can start small! The dreaming big can come into being through smaller steps.  I can take my time.  I don’t have to be, or write, the finished article.  Trying to get it right stifles my creative, spontaneous expression, leaving me isolated with nothing but my frustrated dreams for company.

Now, a couple of months later, through contact with Dawn and a group she is forming, I find that my interest and this short piece of writing has inspired others to respond and explore this theory too.  And, here we are creating this 5 layer magazine!  In relationship my original, slightly flatlining ambitions have become this deep and rich exploration, an actual creation, not just a dream.

Who knows, maybe one day the original idea will find its way into being. I suppose I just need to find the right support.


[1] I offer gratitude to Julie Gibbons and her online programmes Mandala Magic and Mandala Days and all that I have learned through them


The mandalas below emerged during a 3/4 week period following a challenging experience on a training residential. In trying to grapple with the feelings and disturbance I was left with I turned to my art making and represent my moving through the layers into a sense of freedom and excitement, beyond the chaos of the residential.



Frustrated, I don't know what's happening, no one understands. blank



How can I make this different? I can't. I'm so angry. I give up.



Ah! I don't have to do anything. I can leave. I have my own life to live. I'm excited!

Adventures in Being

Gestalt Therapy and Counselling for Growth in Edinburgh with Karen Nimmo